The University of Virginia conducted a six-year study of student alcohol consumption based on the “Social Norms” theory of H. Wes Perkins, professor of sociology at HWS, who also helped UVa with the research. Results, published in the Journal of American College Health, have been widely covered in the media over the past few weeks, including in The Daily Progress, in Charlottesville, Va., “Earth Times,” “Pacific Business News,” “Healthcare Industry Today,” the Chronicle of Higher Education News Blog, and dozens of television stations spanning the U.S., from Las Vegas, NV, to East Providence, R.I. Surveying an estimated 15,000 students from 2001 to 2006, researchers at the UVa and Perkins determined that students’ perceptions about their peers’ drinking behavior were much higher than the actual consumption. Using these data, UVa initiated a social norm marketing campaign that Perkins and coauthors James Turner and Jennifer Bauerle of UVa show in their research has substantially reduced misperceptions and dramatically lowered actual negative consequences of drinking at that institution. Perkins is a graduate of Purdue University, and he received his M.A., M. Div., M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University. He is the author of dozens of journal articles about substance abuse prevention and has been honored with national awards for his work in preventing alcohol and drug abuse in colleges and universities. His work with Professor David Craig is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a premiere model for substance abuse prevention. As a sample of the media coverage about the study, the full article from The Daily Progress appears below.
The Daily Progress “Alcohol battle pays dividends, UVa study finds” Aaron Lee • August 11, 2008 Some University of Virginia students’ perceptions of their peers’ drinking habits are changing, a new study suggests. Data from an estimated 15,000 surveys done from 2001 to 2006 has led to a marketing campaign researchers said is correcting misconceptions about what many people believe is more or less a collegiate pastime. James Turner, executive director of Student Health at UVa, said Monday that the study is based on surveys of undergraduate students. The study’s findings included showing that over the six-year period students reported driving under the influence fewer times in 2001 than they did in 2006. While Turner said some students assume the opposite. “It’s these misconceptions of the norms that tend to drive behavior,” Turner said. Schools across the country have used similar approaches — known as “social norming” — to curb alcohol abuse, promote recycling and combat prescription drug abuse, among other things. During the study, the UVa surveys asked students to pair their alcohol consumption with a list of consequences they may have experienced after drinking too much. The list included missing class, having unprotected sex and getting in trouble with police. After comparing 2006 numbers with those from 2001, the study found that roughly 2,000 fewer students were injured by alcohol-related events and that 550 fewer engaged in unprotected sex. The study also found the number of students who reported experiencing no alcohol-related consequences was down by 2,500. And that females tended to respond positively to the university’s social norming marketing 30 percent more often than males, Turner said. Poster campaign Turner said the university has reinforced those findings by promoting them campus-wide on posters and on the Internet. It’s also led to the distribution of more than 30,000 cards that help students gauge their alcohol intake. Linda Hancock is director of the Wellness Resource Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, where since 2002 freshmen have been surveyed about their perceptions of safe sex and responsible alcohol use prior to their first day of classes. After the initial surveys, Hancock said, students are inundated with posters around campus that debunk misconceptions about the state of VCU students’ health habits. Officials also print “stall journals” with VCU survey data and place them in bathrooms around the university. Hancock said people are often skeptical after hearing VCU students live healthy lifestyles. Among students, that perception can come from repeatedly seeing unhealthy living among the same people again and again and thinking it’s normal, Hancock said. “The majority who don’t get hammered don’t get seen,” she said. Hancock said VCU’s surveys report 25 percent of the students don’t drink and that upwards of 70 percent are not drinking in a range she describes as “high risk,” or having a blood-alcohol level above .08, the legal limit in Virginia. The UVa study also reported that 25 percent of its students report being alcohol-free, Turner said. H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, said that while plenty of schools have tried implementing social norms programs, many don’t stick with them long enough to see substantial results. Some schools put up posters during Alcohol Awareness Week and then “go home for the year,” he said. Social norms Perkins helped pioneer work on social norms in the mid-1980s and helped with the UVa study. He said the five-year data collection period produced figures he believes other schools would find if they stuck longterm with norming programs. At Hobart and William Smith — population less than 2,000 — Perkins said a four-year study in the late 1990s showed “high-risk drinking” was cut by 40 percent over the life of the study. Around the country he’s also found that “scare tactics” and cracking down on policy enforcement often lead to a backlash from students. At Florida State University, health officials try to correct misconceptions among their student body — roughly 35,000 undergraduates this fall — with mandatory classes for those found committing an alcohol violation on or off campus. Those classes also try to find out if a student has underlying problems, such as prescription-medication abuse, said Lesley Sacher, director of FSU’s Thagard Student Health Center. Sober data Outside of a student getting in trouble, the college has also used public service announcements, billboards and advertisements on buses to put sober data out. “When you’re dealing with a complex social issue, there’s really no magic bullet,” Sacher said of the university’s multiple approaches. Lynn Reyes, a drug and alcohol counselor at the University of Arizona, said she finds mandatory classes for students who get into trouble with alcohol to be effective. “My preference is to talk to students one on one about norms,” Reyes said.